Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius

ISBN: 0806519606
ISBN 13: 9780806519609
By: Marc Seifer William H. Terbo

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About this book

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), credited as the inspiration for radio, robots, and even radar, has been called the patron saint of modern electricity. Based on original material and previously unavailable documents, this acclaimed book is the definitive biography of the man considered by many to be the founding father of modern electrical technology. Among Tesla's creations were the channeling of alternating current, fluorescent and neon lighting, wireless telegraphy, and the giant turbines that harnessed the power of Niagara Falls.

Reader's Thoughts

Jim Lyke

It had been many years since I read Margaret Cheney's book about Tesla, and I was still an undergraduate (in engineering). As many have commented, Tesla was amazingly under-appreciated in our society (one reviewer asked why we were taught about Edison but not Tesla). This book, despite its seeming subjectivenss towards Tesla, did a very good job in painting his darker side, his hyperbolicity about his later proposed inventions (especially wireless power generation and death rays), his hubris in lifestyle, and arrogance in mis-purposing the investments he received from JP Morgan to pursue far more aggressive aims, blissfully ignoring the more modest and potentially more achievable instructions. Had he simply done (or tried to do) what JP asked, it is likely he would either have succeeded (and gained much more deserved celebrity) or at least might have garnered more backing. Instead, he squandered most of these investments, and in an almost self-destructive bend, did much to undermine much of what he should be well-remembered for (the invention of the polyphase AC system we have used and taken for granted for over 100 years). I felt less sympathetic after this expose of over-pleading, over-selling, and casual indifference to his own financial matters.Being an electrical engineer, I didn't find this book "too technical", and in fact for my taste, it could have been more expository on the principles behind some of his inventions. But I guess that would have lost even more of the readers, based on the other reviews posted here.Unlike many of the other reviews, I didn't find this book too long or too prone to descend into minutae. I mean, read almost any of Manchester's books (such as one of his Churchill biographies), and you will see how other authors spend a lot of words/pages detailing not just the author but the millieu of the times. While that practice can be annoying, I didn't feel relative to other biographers, that Seifer over-stepped in this regard. I actually did appreciate more development of his Serbian background and connections.There were things I thought bizarre, however, about the book and these are probably annoying to more technical readers. For example, it seems that the author is trying to credit Tesla with the invention of the laser, apparently suggesting that Tesla, if not by intention, then by accident at least, have reproduced the resonant cavity effect necessary to produce laser amplification (I believe Seifer said that Tesla might have accidentally nicked a mirror in one apparatus to approximate the imperfect polishing needed to produce laser action). This seems ridiculous to me, and I have never seen any other analysis or evidence of this achievement. Tesla maintained any number of crackpot concepts, such as being able to produce energies that exceed the speed of light. Seifer, in trying to connect concepts such as tachyons to Tesla claims, appears to be straining credibility, as he clearly doesn't understand the concepts himself ("oh, someone said Tachyons are faster than light, so somehow that must be what Tesla was talking about"). These sorts of over-reaching implications/assertions led me to downgrade the book. Others had made comments about Seifers tendency to conjecture about personal interactions and meetings, though that didn't really bother me, as I felt these were made clear by context as not being source-able as actual occurrences. The final annoyance was an over-reaching attempt to connect-the-dots relative to "secret government" plots to take Tesla's ideas. As in many conspiracy theories (think Roswell aliens), it is very hard to prove something didn't happen, and after nearly a century you'd expect that any insights or concepts would have been thoroughly plowed through (I worked at Wright-Patt in the mid-1980's and discussed Tesla with the base history office, saw the "not you, too" eye-rolling when I asked where the secret plans were).I look forward to reading the new Carlson (even LONGER as a warning to the other reviewers who though Seifer's book was too long) biography on Tesla, in the hopes (as other reviewers commented) that Tesla will finally get the biography he deserves. Seifer's book, while on balance better than the other biographies I am aware of, was probably still diminished by some obvious built-in biases and the need to connect-the-dots with improbable links to lasers and tachyons.

Pupsi

Fascinating look at a genius's life. The impressions I got were:- He was a brilliant inventor, but not good at commercially managing and developing his ideas. Edison was better - He lived in a time were the possibilities and optimism for Electricity was boundless. there was nothing that could not be solved with electricity - I think he lost a huge chuck of time, money and his sanity over the idea of wireless electrical distribution. I still not sure if this is because he was so far ahead of his time like the blade-less turbine or because it is just not feasible.- Electricity and wireless were the internet of the day. So much VC money going into them Typical mad scientist.

Wayne Crich

A very poor biography in that the writer seems to have no real desire to give the reader any insight into Tesla. A wealth of detail that is of very little interest or value and has little to do with the subject of the biography. I am left with the impression that Tesla was a man with a fertile imagination but was unable to translate that into actual inventions that anyone would want to invest in. In short bordering on genius but not quite getting there.Way too long winded with unnecessary detail and too little on the subject. Edison seems a far more laudable figure.

Dave Peticolas

There are a number of Tesla biographies now available. I suspect I may have picked the wrong one. Much of it is serviceable and the bare facts of Tesla's life and times, presented copiously and in rigid chronological order, are interesting enough to make up for a plodding style. There are, however, definite flaws. For some reason the author chose to highlight a platonic romance between Tesla and a married friend. The details are totally uninteresting and its dramatizations are painful to read. It is as if an editorial mistake had strewn random pages of a lukewarm romance novel into a Tesla biography. Every bit of it could have been left out and the result would have been an unmitigated improvement.There are other problems. The author is a 'psycho-historian' and uses Freudian psychology and handwriting analysis to speculate on the motives of various subjects. I was not convinced. And the final chapters get well into conspiracy-theory territory in their speculations on what may have been done with Tesla's work on "death rays" among other things.Tesla is certainly worth reading about, but if you do I'd recommend passing on this one.

Tony Heyl

I hadn't read much about Tesla's life and inventions, so I thought this would be enlightening and a pleasure to read. As a person interested in science and technology, this seemed like a great choice. Instead, it was pretty boring. In some ways, Tesla comes across as the genius he is, being at the forefront of the electronic age and developing solutions and ideas for wireless communication, light, and electricity for all. On the other hand, his financial problems and his issues with getting credit for his own work could have been addressed if he just had an attorney helping him along the way. I became less sympathetic towards him as the story progressed as a result.The bigger problem for me in this book was the lack of context to the rest of the country and world. Good biographies weave a tapestry with the fabric of society at the time it was written or the context of the topic. See Robert Caro explaining the history of the Senate before writing about LBJ's time as Majority Leader or Nixonland as good examples. This is a timeline story of Tesla, with not enough to bring it back to really show the contrasts between this European immigrant and American inventers and his true place in history. Despite the work that Seifer clearly put into the book, it feels on the level of a high school thesis instead of a great biography.I wouldn't recommend this. It's not engaging enough, though the content is at times interesting.

Jason Bergman

A fascinating look at the life of a strange and brilliant man. This is very much a warts and all approach to his life, which is a good thing, in my opinion. Tesla may have been a genius, but he was not a very practical man, and he had a deep self-destructive streak to him. There's a lot of great stuff in here, not the least of which is the appendix which examines whether or not Tesla's Wardenclyffe tower, which pretty much destroyed him financially (and mentally) could have ever been successful (probably not). Seifer's text can be a little dry, but then it also swings to unusual moments of overdramatic prose. It's a little strange. I chalk that up to Seifer recycling bits from his doctoral thesis (just a guess). In any event, it's good enough, and Tesla's life was full of enough drama that even the dry bits are pretty interesting. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the life of one of the greatest scientific minds the world has ever known.

Margie

Tesla is one of the most awesomest coolio scientists evah. Totally. Check out what The Oatmeal has to say: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla.And if you're writing your dissertation on Tesla and need to know whether he was in New Jersey or New York on April 19th so that you can confirm that a conversation really took place, this is the book for you. It's great at that level of documentation. On the other hand, if you want to read about how awesomely coolio Tesla was, this book may make you want to gouge your eyes out.I do not need to know which of his instructors at university was mustachioed and which had a full head of hair. Really, really do not. Do not care. Yet I really care about Tesla - I'd love to learn more about him. This book is not the means to that end for me. The minutia killed it for me.I'd give it three stars because it obviously gives historical information that people want, but I'm mad about the way it made me feel. Admittedly I'm not an engineer and don't know a whole lot about electricity. But I'm not stupid - I read a lot of books about various branches of science. But this book was so overwhelmingly tedious that it made me want to read a picture book about Tesla. Or a pop-up book! That would be fun! I just wanted to get to the good stuff, and I felt superficial in the face of this dense collection of minutia. The emphasis on tiny unimportant (to my mind) details lessened the impact of Tesla's discoveries and inventions. The elevation of the unimportant made the important seem flat. I wasn't able to maintain my attention, and also was wearied by the effort required to sift through to find the interesting stuff.So only two stars. Tesla, though: 17 stars.

Jeri Lane

This book was great...if I could only understand half of it. Ha ha. I have a fascination with Nikola Tesla and always have, however I am not of the capacity to understand his genius, which is what this book is mostly about. It gives a good account of his personal history, but of course, it focuses mostly on his amazing life's work and the vast improvements made to others work. Where would we be without Nikola Tesla? He has no doubt been touched by God. To understand energy and be able to harness it as he has makes him one of the greatest men in world history, with one of the most beautiful minds.

Martina

No review of mine would be complete without a little backstory, so I shall share it now. I've been acquainted with the genius of Nikola Tesla for a long, long time. Ever since I've come to the realization that we owe that man a lot, I've striven to inform myself about the man and his work. I watched documentaries, attended lectures, read publications; I was terribly angry when the recreated Tesla laboratory in the Technical museum wasn't open when I found a time slot to visit it... heh, the only sin I'm guilty of is not visiting his house in Smiljan. I've even watched Prestige just to see how David Bowie had tapped into Tesla's role, for crying out loud.That all being said, I have to admit that I've expected The Wizard to be a book suitable for revision of facts I already knew about Tesla. I thought that it should be good as an introduction to Tesla's life and work, but I was a bit skeptical on what new could such a book offer to me. You can't imagine my delight when I started reading - after the chapters on Tesla's origins and childhood, which presented me with little new facts, I embarked on a very different journey. I can only imagine the time and effort it took the author to collect so many sources, and write such a unique and complete biography. Every passage, sentence or letter has a reference, so that readers can be directed to other sources, either for checking or simply finding new literature. What I also loved was the inclusion of multiple tellings of some situations in Tesla's life (for example, the two contradictory stories that depict Tesla's drive for money, or lack thereof, in his dealings with Edison).Seifer pictures Tesla's life in such minute detail, that even a person with a ready-made skeleton can make tweaks on the skeleton and start to construct tendons and joints, and completely flesh the structure out. The sheer wealth of information left me very impressed, and I was a skeptic no more. Instead, I learned so many things I didn't know prior, concerning Tesla's life and struggle. Because, let's face it, people - it was a battle with many admirable adversaries. From Edison, the people with whom Tesla had founded his first company, svindlers galore (yes, Michael Pupin and all that mendacious crowd that had preferred to simply not mention Tesla), money investors and bankers (yes, I'm talking about J.P. Morgan and the gang which squashed Tesla's dream of free energy), plagiators (yes, that is pointed towards Marconi), fires in his laboratories, to the general public (during the battle of currents and also later on in life), Tesla had had to fight his way to the top. And even though he had had his share of triumphs (1891/92. and the European tour, the fame which came in 1893/94., etc.), external factors and his own ideas seemed to work against him (after all, the ideas he had later on in life were the culprits of his pendulous fall...). Not to mention that he was in a not so grateful position of an expatriate in a new country (which he clearly felt, at least in the beginning, for he had written upon the demise of his Hungarian friend Szegeti, “I feel alienated, and it is difficult [for me to adapt to the American lifestyle].”). But in spite all that, he achieved great things of unsurpassed practical value. It would take me a whole book to list his discoveries, but let's mention the rotating magnetic field, polyphase electric system, lasers, fluorescent lights, wireless transmission and radio among the myriad other things we use in everyday life. But ultimately, Tesla's life story doesn't end up on a very optimistic note. Because, it all boils down to a man who had lots of great ideas which could have brought even more prosperity to mankind, but was barred from achieving the bulk of them by people who didn't have such altruistic interests as he had. All in all, I really liked this book. After all, it can't possibly be dull when it has such a fascinating topic! However, it wasn't flawless. The chronological structure, while logical, was perhaps one of the weaknesses of the book. I can tell that Seifer's goal was to present Tesla's life in an orderly way, but as a result of that, some chapters felt jumbled as we got to read about the different aspects of Tesla's life, consecutively. (Don't get me wrong, one of The Wizard's strengths is that it also discusses Tesla's social life, and gives proof in the form of various letters, directed either to or from Tesla, but that was tightly enmeshed in the tales of Tesla's discoveries, which made it a bit difficult for my mind to switch from topic to topic.) Another minor quibble - after the chapter Loose ends and Tesla's death, the author talks about some historical issues which perhaps were not necessary. But aside from that, the book is great and I highly recommend it.

J.P.

I’m still looking for the definitive biography on Nikola Tesla because rest assured this isn’t it.The author throws non-essential information about like it was confetti. I knew from the first chapter when he starts with the history of Croatia that this would be a less than promising beginning. Unfortunately it doesn’t get any better. People keep cropping up who had very little contact with or influence on Tesla. Information on his discoveries are kept to a minimum while matters of who filed what patent and when go on ad nauseum. There’s very little real science involved. It’s amazing how many times the author strays off the subject to bring up a trivial piece of data I could’ve lived the rest of my life without knowing. I’m willing to bet that overall more of the text is not about Tesla. I wouldn’t have thought that a book about such a creative genius could be balled up to the point of practically making it unreadable. Cripes! Please, somebody write a really good biography of this man who deserves better than the treatment here.

Jeni Enjaian

If I could give half stars, I would give this book 3.5. I enjoyed it but it wasn't quite good enough to warrant 4 stars. When I first started listening, I got really excited to learn that the author was determined to stick to strict chronology. For a biography this makes so much sense. I'm pleased to report that aside from a few necessary deviations, Seifer stuck to a strictly chronological narrative. I think I enjoyed this book more than I would have otherwise because I'm a huge fan of the Syfy shows Eureka and Warehouse 13. Those shows make so many allusions to Tesla and his contemporaries and they also get those references (for the most part) right. While I did not mind the more technical portions of the narrative devoted to Tesla'a inventions and breakthroughs, I know that some might find the specificity off-putting. One thing that bothered me was the lack of quotation designation. This probably is due in large part to the fact that I read the book as an audiobook. Listening made it hard to distinguish between quote and narrative. Also, some of the transitions in Tesla's life are unclear in the book. I must give the disclaimer that it may have been due to inattention on my part though the books is a little fuzzy at some points. One other pet peeve that drove me nuts was the author's far too frequent use of the word "utilize" instead of use. A history professor drilled that dislike (grammatical error actually) into me years ago and it still sticks. :) I did enjoy the book despite the British narrators awkward American accent and would recommend it to anyone how wants to learn about one of the greatest inventors of all time.

Steven Peterson

Nikola Tesla was without a doubt a genius when it came to electricity and engineering. Have you ever been in wonder at the electric power produced by Niagara Falls? Well, this was a product of Tesla's insights and work.The book traces nicely the trajectory of Tesla's career. We learn of his youth and his formative influences. He moved to the United States and began his work inventing devices. Early on, he came up with an electrical system--A.C.--as opposed to Thomas Edison's D.C. The two ended up--at best--as frenemies, and often sniped with one another. The same with Guglielmo Marconi.When one considers Tesla's discoveries, it is clear that he was a major figure in his field. He gained the support of major figures, such as George Westinghouse. But, with time, he began to deliver less and less, as some of his eccentricities took center stage. At one point, he thought he was receiving signals from Mars. His eccentricity did not work in his favor.And he liked to live well. But he met with reverses. He created Wardenclyffe, an enormous effort to develop wireless communication that could cover stupefying distances. Because of his poor business model, all was lost.The book well covers his genius--and his shortcomings and stubbornness.Want to learn more about a genuine genius? Take a look at this work. It is not always the most elegantly written, but the work is still quite readable. Documentation is solid.

Peter McGarvey

Since Tesla was such a fascinating personality I was expecting this biography to be a bit more dynamic. That said, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla is still a great read albeit a bit dry.There is room however, for a definitive biography of one of the great characters in the drama that was the 20th century.

Constantin Minov

Nicola Tesla was the discoverer of the AC polyphase system, the induction motor, fluorescent lights, mechanical and electrical oscillators, a novel steam propulsion system, wireless transmission of intelligence, light, and power, remote control, and interplanetary communication.He was a great electrical and mechanical engineer but despite this Tesla failed to make the right business decisions He first found employment with Thomas Edison by meeting him in New York.Edison was working on an direct current motor and he offered 50 thousands dollars to improve his primitive machine.Tesla worked eighteen hours a day finding ways to improve it but once he finished it Edison took the offer back stating that it was a joke.Edison was a businessman , the only thing he invented for real, is the electric chair, One thing Edison was better that Tesla is the market strategies which he employed workers and then neglecting the patents to be in their names.He once said that he had no need to be a mathematician because he could always hire one."Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal -Thomas Edison, 1847-1931" George Westinghouse also hired Tesla for a short time as a consultant.They completely funded Tesla’s research and offered him a royalty agreement on future profits but in short time after patents were filed in his name, other scientists came across, taking credit for the invention, once again his name was lost in the shuffle. J. P. Morgan also made his best to ensure the inventor’s defeat, the monopolistic drive of Morgan "was greatly defined by controlling the price and distribution of energy and maintaining a working class to support the giant corporate monopolies"I'm quoting the author of "the 48 laws of power" Robert Greene who also mentioned about Tesla in his book: "The financiers had divested Tesla of the riches, the patents, and essentially the credit for the greatest invention of his career.The name of Guglielmo Marconi is forever linked with the invention of radio. But few know that in producing his invention—he broadcast a signal across the English Channel in 1899—Marconi made use of a patent Tesla had filed in 1897, and that his work depended on Tesla’s research. Once again Tesla received no money and no credit. Tesla invented an induction motor as well as the AC power system, and he is the real “father of radio.” Yet none of these discoveries bear his name. As an old man, he lived in poverty." Tesla argued that science had nothing to do with politics, and claimed not to care for fame and riches"This was a a quite different biography, the book illustrates how a monopoly market power can ruin an individual scientific work.Lesson to Teach:"First, the credit for an invention or creation is as important, if not more important, than the invention itself. You must secure the credit for yourself and keep others from stealing it away, or from piggy-backing on your hard work. To accomplish this you must always be vigilant and ruthless, keeping your creation quiet until you can be sure there are no vultures circling overhead. Second, learn to take advantage of other people’s work to further your own cause. Time is precious and life is short. If you try to do it all on your own, you run yourself ragged, waste energy, and burn yourself out. It is far better to conserve your forces, pounce on the work others have done, and find a way to make it your own.-- Robert Greene"

Morgan Blackledge

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but before reading this book, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had pretty much bought into the new age mythology that Tesla was a mystic genius visionary who was the victim of Edison's jealous, evil industrialist thievery and sabotage. Now, after reading accounts of Tesla's embarrassing social, financial and professional missteps, his ridiculous pleading correspondences to J.P. Morgan (and other wealthy would-be benefactors), and less than half baked journal submissions (particularly the one that interpreted a three beat radio transmission as a communication from intelligent extra terrestrials), I'm seeing Tesla in a whole new light. Rather than a victim of conspiratorial thuggery, I now see Tesla as a victim of his own chronic douchiness.Tesla was clearly decades ahead of his peers. But being "ahead of your time", contrary to hipster dogma, is not necessarily a good thing. Tesla had amazing ideas. But good ideas without good execution are about useless, where as even mediocre ideas, well executed, can at least be useful to someone. Tesla was with out a doubt, an amazing inventor. But it's hard not to feel like he could have achieved so much more if he wasn't such a dysfunctional, self sabotaging, grandiose douche bag.This book is a well done (if a little long) biography of a fascinating (to say the least) character from a fascinating time. But the real value of the book is as a cautionary tale of how unchecked cognitive biases (see: confirmation bias) and magical thinking can be the undoing of even brilliant and talented people like Tesla. Be warned; if your model of reality becomes too divorced from actual reality, you may needlessly fritter away your hard work and talent on some really ridiculous shit. Read this book, particularly if you like biographies of scientists, but if you're one of those Tesla worshipers, be prepared to deify the guy a whole lot less upon completion. Ultimately, the book renders a portrait of Tesla that is humane and realistic. Uncovering Tesla's scammy shenanigans, unexamined self delusions and outrageous foibles, while concurrently celebrating his incredible creativity and authentic brilliance.BTW: a film is in production starring (self serious, tortured) Christian Bale as Tesla. I think (brilliant, trixter, clown) Sacha Baron-Cohen would make for a better, more realistic, funner film.

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